A New Golden Age of American Animation?

American Animation has always been cyclical in it’s quality, something that has driven myself and many people who see it as an art form more than a little nuts. You see, Animation is a medium, much like TV or Comic Books or Music, and for most of my life it’s been the poor abused cousin of Comic Books in the US and the English speaking world.

There have been several high points in American animation on TV, with the first coming in the 1960’s, then the second in the 1980’s, and another in the 1990’s. In the 1960’s you saw the first real TV animation happening, and people rushed into it with everything from Johnny Quest and the Flintstones on prime time, to Marvel Superhero shows and many Hanna Barbera shows like The Herculoids, Wacky Races and of course (in 1969) Scooby Doo. Animation was a new art form, and people loved it. It was busting out with ideas and new things were being tried.

Unfortunately, in the early 1970’s concerned parents groups attacked animation as unhealthy for kids, and so it went from being wild and exciting to being safe, bland and boring. So that was that end of that!

Then the 1980’s came, and with it we saw the rise of first-run Syndicated TV, which allowed for the producers of animation to shake off the shackles that the big Networks had to run under. To add to that, recent changes in the law allowed for toy companies to directly sponsor cartoons and have their commercials run alongside those cartoons, and so the animation industry was suddenly flush with cash!

As any child of the 80’s can tell you, the early and mid-eighties were a marvelous time to be a kid. You woke up to Jace and the Wheeled Warriors (Wheels Keep on Movin’!), The Galaxy Rangers and The Bionic Six, you ate your lunch with the Thundercats and when you came home from school it was a double bill of The (original) Transformers and GI Joe every weekday from 4-5. So many shows, so much animation, so many toys.

There was a problem, though. While they were free(er) of Network Shackles, these were still toy commercials and they were still pretty limited in what they could do and say. The writing was sometimes good, usually okay, and sometimes awful, and it was all still aimed at 10 year olds with nods towards their 12 year old brothers and sisters.

Eventually, this too faded as the animation boom of the early 80’s faded into the doldrums of the late 80’s when the parents groups struck again, and the cash and quality of the shows dropped quite a bit.

The 90’s boom was the result of the rise of the fledgling cable networks, and their desire for new shows to bring in young audiences. FOX, WB, and others brought out new lineups that included shows like Batman:TAS, Ducktales, Darkwing Duck, X-Men:TAS, and others. While their quality varied radically, and there was a lot of bad, there was some good mixed in the, and especially the DC Superhero stuff like Batman, Superman, and then finally Justice League really showed a new maturity level over the previous animated shows of the 1980’s as it led into the 21st century.

Now, this is just personal opinion, but I wasn’t very impressed by most of the stuff that came out in early and mid-2000s. Leaving the DC Universe stuff aside, about the only show I can think of offhand that showed real style and wit was Avatar:The Last Airbender. There are few that weren’t bad, but pretty much anything half-decent on the air was usually a Japanese import, and the American industry was back into the doldrums again. I can’t say I watched everything, but I do keep an eye open on the American stuff, hoping beyond hope for a little quality that I know they’re capable of but rarely provide.

I’d say those doldrums are now officially over, and the results are sight to behold. For the first time in literally two decades, I find myself anxiously awaiting each weekend for the express purpose of watching cartoons, and ones that actually aren’t Japanese! It’s shocking when some of the better written stuff on TV (I mean, period) are cartoons for once! I suspect this is largely the result of the fact that Gen X finally has the reigns, and they’re using their power to make the shows they wanted as kids.

So what shows am I talking about? Well, I’ve already let it be known that I’m a fan of the Star Wars:The Clone Wars, which despite the awful character designs is pretty much the only Star Wars thing I like outside of the original trilogy. (Surprise, it’s also produced and directed by the team who did Avatar:The Last Airbender for Nick.) And, I’ve also made reference to the new Sym-Bionic Titan series that I can’t believe how much I adore for what it does with such a tired out old genre.

But, those aren’t the only shows on Rob’s Must-See TV List….

The Avengers: Earths Mightiest Heroes is a show that I checked out on a lark because I happen to be a fan of the old Avengers comics. (When I say Old, I mean 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s, ending there.) I watched the mini-sodes like the one above they put on Youtube and thought it looked okay, the animation was so-so, and the writing and acting weren’t bad. So I watched more when the full show came to TV, mostly just to see how it would come together.

I have to say, this is probably the best superhero team TV series ever done, and I say that as someone who really enjoyed the Justice League cartoons. They took 40 years of convoluted, complex comic-book history and created a show that both sorted it all out (kinda like Batman:TAS did for Batman’s history) and made it all fit together incredibly seamlessly. The show just keeps getting better and better as it goes, with one thing evolving from the next and the storylines getting progressively more and more epic as the show is building. Combine that with a real humour and wit in some of the writing, and you get a show that I wish was more than 52 episodes long. This really is the show I dreamed of as a kid, brought to life, but I’m glad I’m now old enough to appreciate it.

I still can’t believe that a) this is a Marvel show (and it’s good), and b) it’s produced by Disney.

GI Joe: Renegades is a show that I found recently, but quickly grew to like. Simply put, they took the best parts of the GI Joe concept and combined it with The A Team and produced something that seems to have the best elements of both. What surprised me was (again) how good the writing was, and how seamlessly they were letting this play out on a big canvas with serial stories and interesting characters. (If not character designs, which I find kinda plain and ugly, despite the good animation quality.) There is a sense of wit the show is written with, and it all comes together in a way that I wish most of the prime-time shows were done. I’ve only seen a few episodes, and the show may go downhill, but I already have high hopes for it. (Unlike Transformers Prime, which has double the dimensions and half the excitement.)

The final show, which I’m still deciding on personally (but impressed with at least the quality of) is the new DC Universe show Young Justice, which is holding up the torch of quality as far the DC superhero shows go. It’s written in a mature manner for a teen audience, and the animation itself is gorgeous. I don’t think I will like it as much as I do the others on this list, as I find the characters a bit dull in some ways (they were done better in the previous Teen Titan series on WB) but I think that’s more of a personal issue, and the show itself is well done overall.

Anyways, with a lineup like this filling the American airwaves, it looks like we might just be having another upswing in the quality of American TV animation. I just hope it lasts!

%d bloggers like this: